Servant leadership is more than means to an end.
This morning, I read yet another article about servant leadership's power to manipulate outcomes. The gist: "Get more clients, recruit better talent, and engage the staff you have!" Ugh. This reads like cheesy 1950s ad copy, yet it seems to be the commonly accepted wisdom on the topic. And it completely misses the point.
Here's the deal: True servant leadership is fundamentally NOT about outcomes.
In fact, it is the opposite of traditional, power-based leadership. It is instead an emptying that shifts your gaze towards the needs of others. If you approach servant leadership with an eye towards what you will get back (happy clients, happy employees, more anything), then you have failed to grasp its core principle.
While not a means to increase power, servant leadership is powerFUL. It transforms your work into something that is centered on other people, not yourself. And that iterates. If authentic, you will lead people to shift their gazes to the needs of others, they will inspire more people to do the same, and that reorientation will ripple in perpetuity.
To revisit what I just said...Servant leadership transforms your work into something that is centered on other people, not yourself.
Let me break that down further for you:
- It transforms your work into something that is centered on other people, NOT YOURSELF. This means that you will cease to begin with the outcome you want to see, and instead begin with the needs of others. Those external needs will become your top priorities, and your own ambitions will fade into the background, at least in any recognizable form.
(Yes, it's hard.)
- It transforms your work into something that is centered on other PEOPLE, not yourself.
Your priorities will not only shift to a point external to yourself, but they will focus on deep human needs.* Not your department, not your organization, not your industry, not your policy concern, not your political party, not your nation. Loyalties to institutions must also take the back seat.
(This too is difficult.)
- It TRANSFORMS YOUR WORK into something that is centered on other people, not yourself.
Servanthood is a radical notion. If you pursue it, it will transform your work and, by extension, the work of your teams and institutions. Importantly, this transformation will not be something you can define in advance. Why? It will be organically driven by the needs of others, which you may come to understand, but never to predict.
(This one is plain scary. You must relinquish control, and most leaders don't like to do that.)
Servant leadership is a deeply powerful idea. It is means AND end. It both requires and promises transformation - namely, an emptying of self and a detachment from concentrated power. However, please be aware that most of the folks peddling the idea are selling you snake oil. If you want the real thing, you must accept authentic servanthood's difficult, but profoundly rewarding challenge.
Good luck, friends! I appreciate you.
* Environmentalists, I consider ecological flourishing a deep human need and not at odds with servanthood. Rest of you, I point this out because environmental ethicists rightly criticize folks who worry about humanity in a hierarchical way that ignores humans' interrelation with the rest of the natural world (and therefore throws other species under the bus). This nuance is ethicist-wonky, so I pulled it to the footnotes, but as an ethicist I can't ignore it.